ZAATARI CAMP, Jordan — In the sprawling refugee camp growing across the desert of northern Jordan, the words “sarin gas” are on the lips of most of its anti-government Syrian residents.
Accusations that Syrian President Bashar Assad has gassed his own people float from tent to tent like the ever-present dust that covers the roads, saturating life like the withering heat. But they say they want to see Bashar fall no matter what weapons he used.
Young men and old women alike insist the use of chemical weapons means the United States has a responsibility to bring Assad down.
But, as Moscow and Washington look to take away Assad’s weapons without the use of force, the refugees in this camp located a few miles from the border acknowledge that their hope is fading.
Sabaah Asis, a 50-year-old woman says she lost two sons who fought with the Free Syrian Army. She cited unverified rebel claims that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons as recently as Sept. 12 in Jobar, a suburb of Damascus. State-controlled television news said Syrian soldiers found rebel-owned chemical weapons in the same neighborhood on the same day.
“Whether he has chemical weapons or not, Bashar should go down,” Asis said. “This is our urgent desire.”
The Syrian government has strongly denied it ever used toxic gases. The United States said its investigation clearly showed the Syrian government had deployed the weapons. A U.N. investigation confirmed chemical weapons had been used and an analysis by Human Rights Watch and The New York Times of the details in the U.N. report about delivery of the weapons indicated they were likely fired from government positions near Damascus.
On Sept. 13, Free Syrian Army supporters strung up banners in the camp calling on the U.S. to punish Assad for the chemical attacks. A few dozen people, mostly young men, gathered as partisans read out the names of rebel fighters killed the day before in Daraa, a town in sight of the Jordanian border, where some of the fiercest fighting has raged in recent days.
U.N. officials say almost all the residents are members of Syria’s Sunni majority, which has supported the 2½-year uprising. There are virtually no Allawites, Christians, Druze or Kurds — Syrian minorities, which have largely sided with the government in the escalating war.
Munthar Nablsi pulled a journalist aside and produced a red piece of fragile crepe paper from his pocket.
“This is what Obama has given to Bashar al Assad,” he said, referring to President Barack Obama’s statement more than a year ago that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross a “red line.”
“This is the red line,” Nablsi added. “I’m wondering now about the character of the U.S.A.”
But, asked whether it mattered whether Assad surrenders his chemical weapons to Russia, he continued, “We know that it’s not a problem of chemical weapons. We know that if he uses chemical weapons or doesn’t use chemical weapons, he will keep killing and killing and killing, and that is with the approval of the whole world.”
Few in the international community deny that Syria’s civil war has been filled with atrocities beyond the use of chemical weapons.
A report to the U.N. Human Rights Council by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria released Sept. 13 accuses both sides in the conflict, but most systematically those loyal to Assad, of targeting hospitals and medical personnel. It also accuses Assad forces of detaining and torturing people in military hospitals.
Suleiman Ahmed, who arrived in Zaatari from a suburb of Damascus on Sept. 13, claimed he had seen the effects of multiple chemical attacks in the eastern part of the city. He described seeing bodies disfigured and discolored by the effects of toxic gas.
“They have scars on their bodies,” he said. “Their faces were horrible.”
Ahmed supported an American attack on Assad, but doubted it would come.
“They promised to do a lot of things,” he said of the international community. “It is only talk.”
While sentiment in Zaatari overwhelmingly supports an American attack on Assad, the Syrian government’s supporters in Jordan applaud the disarmament agreement.
Rasmi Jabara, a Jordanian, describes himself as a political activist and writer, and says he traveled to Syria last week with a group of Jordanians to show solidarity with Assad.
“If the U.S. strikes Assad, what are the consequences?” he argued. “Let’s take Iraq as an example. We will have sectarian war. The country will be totally separated.”
A recent research report from analyst firm Jane’s Defence concludes that nearly half of Syria’s rebels are Islamic hardliners, and many are associated with groups such as al-Qaida.
Jabari claims the overwhelming majority of people inside Syria are against American strikes on the regime. He dismissed comments from refugees in Zaatari.
“I can confirm to you that all the people living in the camps, especially Zaatari, are like terrorists,” Jabari said, adding that the Syrian rebels in truth seek to destroy the country they claim to love.
Rashid Dakhllah, sitting in a refugee tent that felt like a furnace in the midday sun, said he once loved Syria.
The country is younger than he is. Dakhllah produced his passport to prove he is 106 years old. If correct, that would mean he lived in Syria when it was part of the Ottoman Empire, then when it was governed by the French, and during the bloody cycle of coups after it won independence from colonial rule in the 1940s.
He says Assad has committed far worse brutality than his father, Hafez Assad, who brutally crushed a rebellion in the 1980s. In fact, it is the worst destruction he has ever seen in the nation’s relatively brief history.
“Before, it was Syria. It was real Syria,” he said. “Syria, the country I loved, it’s gone. Gone.”
Mazen al Tamimi contributed to this report